Alexis Grant, (The Traveling Writer), posed a provocative question on Twitter: How were memoir writers “playing with time . . . for the sake of the story arc?”
Since this is a problem I’ve faced—and probably will continue to face—in the memoir I’m writing, it’s helpful for me to think consciously about how I’m handling the sequence of events in my narrative to create a strong story. My goal is for readers of my memoir to experience the suspense, studded with unexpected revelations, that I did.
We writers have it drummed into us that we need an arresting opening to capture our audience’s interest right from the start. Writing my memoir chronologically might not have accomplished that. So, I decided to sprinkle the bombshells throughout the story—often, but not always, alternating incident and bombshell. I hope I’ve used a light enough touch so that readers won’t notice that device.
Then there’s memory. As I wrote, I recalled incidents from the past that fed into my story. So, I interspersed those memories, allowing the story to turn back on itself occasionally. I think that adds richness and context.
The memoir starts by setting the physical and psychological stage for the story. By the fourth paragraph, a smallish challenge is laid out. Then I insert the memory of an incident from the past that is relevant to this challenge. It involves my mother’s caution: If something happens to me, don’t throw anything out.
The second chapter goes back to my childhood, to pertinent facts—and financial incidents—in my immediate family. The third brings us to a big surprise, as the challenge escalates. The next lays out financial eccentricities of my immediate ancestors. So the present and past are also alternating.
And then, the quest, with its twists and surprises, begins in earnest.